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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Let's do the...Hazare?


"...to do a Hazare..."?


This was in the paper a few weeks ago.Up front, I wanted to say that for me, this picture captures perfectly the fate of humanity in the modern era; positive activism in the name of justice and the common good, reduced to a catch phrase that we throw in a “Catch Phrase” pile once the hype is gone. If the phrase “do a Hazare” doesn't have you smiling, then you're either taking that whole public furore from a little while ago too seriously, or you have no idea what I'm talking about. The rest of this post is for the second lot of you, with the added benefit of what I think of the whole thing, if only to entertain you. Oh, and if you laughed your ass off like I did when I saw this headline, then do give this a read and let me know what you think.

Not more than a month ago, the news media in India were all aflutter with reports of how finally, a 73 year-old man - Anna Hazare - having had it “up to here” with corruption, was taking matters into his own hands by fasting unto death, or at least until something was done about this menace. He was going to go without food so that the Indian Parliament would pass the “Lok Pal Bill,” one that would put an end to corruption. There was a whole lot of support for this old man, now the vanguard of the perpetually impoverished, incessantly ripped-off masses, so much so that people assembled at select locations around the country to commit to their “branch” of the hunger fast. There were celebrities and government officials aplenty, giving us their two cents, which really boiled down to what a good job they thought Anna Hazare was doing by taking such drastic measures. The PR surrounding the event was only rivaled, both at the time and for a short period thereafter, by the “Royal Wedding” of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The four days that he did manage to fast, or maybe I should say, the four days that the government allowed the spectacle to continue before taking on this “movement” of sorts, the growing crescendo of activity in the name of activism threatened to balloon into a revolution a la Egypt and Libya, other nations and general “news headlines” from the time period I am referring to. Such were the emotions of the people being shown on TV, gripping an entire nation in a great, big smoke cloud of euphoria, hoping that all would be well once the smoke cleared.

When the fifth day rolled around, I switched on the news to learn that the government had relented, and had agreed to take this bill into consideration, which was hopefully more consideration than it was giving the rest of the issues it was supposed to be dealing with. It was a victory of all things Anna Hazare inspired, but it wasn't really a defeat for the government either. They had just agreed to take the first step, to set up a panel to sit down with a bunch of people who were suggested by Anna Hazare, and then draft the newest avatar of The Lokpal Bill. So, for all intents and purposes, all they were doing was taking the request made by a 73 year-old gentleman no less, “into advisement”. But on TV, anyone watching would have thought that India had just won every single gold medal at the Olympics the way all the news channels was following this, dare I say it, “event” with uninterrupted devotion. Well, this continued coverage and the fact that people were assembling nationwide to show their support for this movement, whether common man or demi-god-like celebrity, went a fair way in creating that effect. But the real irony lay in the fact that these “masses” were only playing their part in what seemed to be the same insipid soap opera by seeking justice from a power-hungry, money-craving, and in many cases oppressive leadership, for the hundredth time. Jokes apart, and I was shocked to find this out myself, the “Lok Pal Bill” has been around since the 1960s! 1966, to be exact. Yes, I said that right. To put it another way, perhaps with an analogy, think of the “Lok Pal Bill” as being a kidney stone that the Indian Government, no matter which party was heading said government, had managed to live with without having it cause them any irritation. Or at least, the government managed to assuage the public with one thing or another so that in a little over half a century, the people have decided to give corruption the indomitable Indian Shoulder Shrug and complain about it, being somehow fated to live in a society where even the people trying to console you may really be ripping you off. And, the fact that the bill has been around for longer than I have is mentally jarring to me, because I can't seem to figure out how, well, more than 500 million people can collectively accept a corrupt society as their lot in life. Even more shocking is the fact that the Lok Pal Bill was first drafted a little less than 15 years after India achieved independence from Britain – that is, after 400 years of oppression during which time corruption was a non-entity for the colonial power running the show – according to this analysis of the Lokpal Bill - because the level of corruption in a still nascent democracy had gotten to stifling levels. That's a real shocker because it implies that although people at that time felt that the proverbial “shit” had hit the “fan”, to use that figure of speech, they weren't willing to do a whole lot about it because the Bill managed to stay on the back burner for so long. So, the people of this country waited a long time, a time that saw Anna Hazare go from being 20-something to 73, before they all gathered in public squares around India declaring their undying support for the septuagenarian who was going to fast unto death.

Another way of putting it, now immortalized by the headline that I started this post with, would be to say that although he didn't know it at the time, and by no means is he the first one to adopt this sort of strategy against the Indian government, Anna Hazare was “doing a Hazare”. I can't even type that out with a straight face. Alright, I'll laugh heartily to myself later, but before saying what I have to say next, I really hope that you're scratching your head about how any of this came to pass. I mean, does it not boggle the mind that in the last 50 years, there have been more riots based on religious differences in such an ethnically diverse nation, than there have been organized rallies to combat corruption, for which there was already a bill drafted and just waiting to be passed through both houses of parliament? What does this really mean? For one thing, it's not as big a problem as we make it out to be, corruption. Having lived in this country as an adult for a while, corruption is the daily headache that after you first encounter it, just becomes something that must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, it is absolutely vital to get something done so that “greasing the palms” of the official standing in your way is not only what you have to do, but depending on how you do it it could get you what you wanted a lot quicker than anyone else. In other cases, it's the status quo that no amount of brave invective against the evil, corrupt sons of bitches who hold open filthy palms “under the table” will end up getting you what you want, unless you do as everybody else is doing and pay up.

And that, as they say, is pretty much how it is. Corruption has been such an intrinsic part of people's lives in India, that I think somewhere deep down, we don't want to let it go. Why not? For the simple fact that it's a way of ensuring that we get what we want to, everything else be damned. Ok, perhaps that's a bit harsh, but allow me to illustrate. To take something that I've witnessed firsthand – I'll let you decide how ironic or ridiculous this is for yourself – on my very first pilgrimage to Sabari Mala, I learned that with the right connections, it was possible to avoid having to wait in line for a day or two, and get right to the front of it. Furthermore, and I was in the capable care of veteran “Swamis” as the pilgrims are commonly known, we could access parts of the temple that were unavailable to the rest of the “public”. Most notable of these places was being able to stand in front of people who had waited for as long as it took them to get there, and take our time in prayer directly in front of the sanctum sanctorum, with an unobstructed view of the idol of Lord Ayappan. This was drastically different to what was going on behind us, with people scrambling over each other for a glimpse of the idol, not getting a second to bring their hands together in prayer before a security guard shoved them aside to make room for the next person, who had as much or as little time as the person before, and so on. But getting to this place took the leader of our little pilgrim clan, first to the office of the head of security, where after about a half an hour he came down with a constable who would accompany us through our journey of visiting the various shrines without the risk of harassment from his colleagues on security detail. In fact, while it takes most people at least a couple of days to wait in a line that gets so long it appears to be a record attempt for the “Longest Human Chain,” we managed to get in and get out in less than six hours, with a police escort, no less. Sure it was “corruption” but neither me nor the people in that group would have had it any other way. Why not? Because the alternatives to resorting to corruption in these kinds of situations, especially if one had or knew people who had the means to “work around it,” almost seems idiotic. It works, therefore it survives thanks to we the public who both fight it, and keep it alive.

And this brings me to the fate of humanity that I started out talking about, reduced to “doing a Hazare” after which it's back to the shoulder-shrugging existence of greasing palms whether we like to or not. Actually, I think the primary reason the people of India cannot part with corruption, apart from anything nostalgic, is because it's more a tool, a catalyst if you will, than it is a “disease” that plagues society. Mind you, it only plagues that part of society that isn't willing to cough up the money, or find a creative way to enter into a quid pro quo arrangement, whatever that may involve. With a population such as ours, we have been standing in line since before we were born. No, that's a very serious statement, if you consider what the average parent goes through in trying to secure a quality education for her or his children, or even the appropriate level of healthcare during the act of childbirth. There are waiting lists in the prestigious educational institutions, and newer schools and colleges have resorted to tests – it was reported that many play schools, Lower Kindergarten type places where kids no older than five, had “Entrance Tests” for the kids, as well as interviews with the parents, all in an effort to ensure that only candidates of a high quality are being admitted. But when a burgeoning population is all trying to access the same sorts of opportunities, of which there are a very, very limited number, we run into a severe bottleneck everywhere we turn. So, what do we do? We try and worm our way in, or better yet, see if we can spot someone that we know, and if there isn't anybody like that around, well, then we turn to our backup – the money in our pocket that we're willing to part with to get done what we were there to get done in the first place. Sure this turns into some kind of “system of corruption” because an existing loophole was spotted as a potential money-making opportunity, but coining a term with the word “system” seeks to put off blame from the real perpetrators of daily corruption – you and me.

So, it's pretty much time to stop shrugging our shoulders, and whining about the state of things in these the most notoriously corrupt times in India. It's time to stop cheering on people who we willingly parade around as the vanguards of all things socioeconomically just, celebrating petty, media-hyped victories, and then forgetting about them until such time as a familiar distraction becomes necessary. We have to decide on what we want to do. If we find ourselves in “a spot of bother” with the law, will we reach into our pocket to fend off a fine, saying things like, “Why would I pay a fine when I can pay the official a fraction of that amount and put this behind me?” to rationalize our actions? Or, will we put our faith in a system that, though flawed, only works if we're willing to follow the rules, and own up to what we've done, making an attempt to not do something as foolish as not wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle and try to weasel out of getting caught, for example. Whatever you do end up doing, just make sure you're not “doing a Hazare”. We've got a long line of people gearing up to do that, like Baba Ramdev, as the headline shows. Most importantly, don't let yourself get “coined” into any kind of term because once that happens, you become a few words that the media and the public will use ad nauseum, until they lose their flavour, like hour-old chewing gum, and get thrown in a Book of Idioms and Expressions somewhere. Hazare ji, for what its worth, I hope there is some element of a “real” victory in your fight against corruption before you leave this world forever. 
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